THE long-awaited outcome of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project was published on Monday, with an invitation to the whole Church of England to immerse itself in a new learning process.
‘At last! They’re united’
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York acknowledge that the work will bring people “face to face, as it has us, with Christian people who have been hurt or harmed by the words and actions of the Church”.
The LLF project was set up in 2017 by the House of Bishops in an attempt to break the deadlock over same-sex relationships, after the General Synod rejected the Bishops’ latest offering on the subject, Marriage and Same-sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (News, 24 February 2017).
Chaired by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, with Dr Eeva John as enabling officer, the LLF project collected together a multi-disciplinary panel of more than 40 theologians, historians, biologists, and social scientists. Early on, Dr Cocksworth warned that the project would not provide simple solutions to the presenting issues, such as whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in church, something that is currently banned (News, 4 January 2019).
And so it has proved. The committee behind the project has published what it calls “a suite of resources”, which includes videos, podcasts, an online learning hub for further reading, and a five-week course, which is being commended for study by parishes — for example, during Lent.
Central to all these is a 480-page book, Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, which contains a distillation of the project’s findings.
Its central aim is to present all opinions on the topic of sexuality fairly and clearly, but then to interrogate them in the light of scripture, science, culture, and lived experience. It tackles questions of how a Church decides such a contentious issue, and who makes that decision, and acknowledges that some issues require Christians to live with difference.
In a foreword to the book, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York acknowledge the same. Looking to a vision of a united Church, they write: “There will probably never be a time when we all agree exactly what that looks like, but our prayer for the Church through this work is that collectively we demonstrate the same love to one another that we have experienced from God; the grace that includes everyone whom Jesus Christ is calling to follow him; the holiness that changes the world and the unity that calls others to faith in Christ.”
The Archbishops strike a note of penitence: “As soon as we begin to consider questions of sexual identity and behaviour, we need to acknowledge the huge damage and hurt that has been caused where talk of truth, holiness and discipleship has been wielded harshly and not ministered as a healing balm.”
They single out LGBTI+ people, and go on: “We have caused, and continue to cause, hurt and unnecessary suffering. For such acts, each of us, and the Church collectively, should be deeply ashamed and repentant. As Archbishops, we are personally very sorry where we have contributed to this.”
They acknowledge the “growing impatience” of many who are concerned with the pastoral impact of the Church’s confused teaching, but argue that things are “moving comparatively quickly (at least in terms of the average speed of change in church history)”.
The book is divided into five parts. The first lays down some basic principles: that the Bible is central to Christian understanding; that history and culture were involved in its writing, and, equally, are in its present-day interpretation, since both are inspired by God, who is also responsible for the material world.
Part two looks more closely at the contemporary world, including statistics about marriage and divorce, attitudes to singleness, and the relationship between identity and gender. It looks at what modern science can contribute to understanding about sexual orientation, gender, and variations in sexual characteristics. And it attempts a survey of Anglican positions on sexuality, including the 1998 statement from the Lambeth Conference, and the growth of GAFCON.
Part three looks at the work of salvation, how it includes the body, and the value of relationships in scripture, singling out the story of David and Jonathan and their “intense mutual affection”. The prevalence of stability and exclusivity in sexual relations is pointed out, but also the absence of mutuality in many relationships, including marriage. Diversity is affirmed, but also the way in which sin can mar God’s purpose.
Part four returns to Christian approaches to sexuality outlined in part one, but looks at these in the light of hermeneutics, and the lessons from creation, cultural context, and personal experience. This section looks at the key biblical texts about sexuality, and dissects each in relations to textual, canonical, and historical context.
Part five develops the “Encounters” that are inserted at the end of each of the preceding sections, which relate the personal experience of individuals. This section includes conversations between several speakers on some of the issues touched earlier.
The message of the book is perhaps best summed up in the following passage:
“In our debates about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, we encounter a complex mix of appeals to science, to scriptural depictions of the natural world, to conventional wisdom, and to Christ’s radical revision of what we might deem natural. There is no quick route to sorting out the differing pressures and possibilities here, nor to ordering and reconciling all these claims. There is no shortcut: listening for the voice of God demands a careful, self-critical and ongoing conversation between our faith and our knowledge of the created world.
“This kind of conversation is, nevertheless, unavoidable for those who believe that God made us, and that God calls us in Jesus to the redemption and fulfilment of our creaturely and sin-marred lives.”
Living in Love and Faith is bookended with notes from the House of Bishops. In an appeal at the start, they write: “It may be that you are weary of the decades of attempts by the Church to engage seemingly fruitlessly or superficially with questions of sexuality and marriage.” They acknowledge that many might believe the task to be impossible, or irrelevant to “the real task of the Church”.
They challenge churchpeople, however, to engage with the LLF materials in the spirit of the six pastoral principles: to address ignorance, acknowledge prejudice, admit hypocrisy, cast out fear, speak into silence, and pay attention to power (Comment, 6 November).
The book ends with an appeal by the Bishops “to walk with us in a new stage of our common life”. This involves the demand “that together we face our differences, divisions, and disagreements honestly, humbly, and compassionately, and that together we stand against homophobia, transphobia, and all other unacceptable forms of behaviour, including demeaning those whose views are different from our own”.
They admit that deep disagreements about how to be obedient to Christ in areas of sexuality “are found among us as bishops”; but recognise, too, that decisions need to be made about same-sex relationships “with some urgency”.
Living in Love and Faith is produced by Church House Publishing at £19.99; Church Times Bookshop, £17.99.
The online resources can be found at churchofengland.org/LLF.
Listen to an interview with Bishop Cocksworth on the Church Times Podcast.